Leonard was one of those pastoral visits pastors avoid.
He was a guy who just got lost in the life of the congregation. He got mad at a pastor back in the mid-1950s and stopped attending worship. He came on and off—mostly off—during successive pastorates thereafter, but never with any regularity. So he was mislaid and nobody much thought about him. It happens frequently.
Leonard was never an important man in the congregation. He never served on the church council, made no waves in city politics; he was just one of those guys, always quiet and easily overlooked, who got mad at a pastor (who, perhaps, didn’t even know it). In his mid-seventies he had to enter a nursing home in another town twelve miles over. It might as well have been Timbuktu.
When I met him he was an ailing man, frequently confused, who for ten years languished in a nursing home. During the last few months of his life his left leg, foot to mid-calf, was black, swollen from diabetic complications.
It seemed there wasn’t much point in doing anything for Leonard except keeping him as comfortable as possible. He would not have survived an amputation. It was a blunt, calculated assessment, but accurate. Surgery would only have made his final months more painful, even had he survived.
First time I visited I was but a year beyond my own diagnosis of diabetes. Was this to be me in not so many years? Those were not unreasonable questions. Pastors must face their own mortality if they are to aid anyone else. I do not mean I came to grips with it, only that I faced it for the first time: death from diabetes. For the first time; that’s the thing about a chronic illness. One faces it successive times. A sudden, unbidden, persistent sensation: someday this will kill me, like it was now killing Leonard. I did not like seeing him.
When I first went to visit him, I checked in at the receptionist’s desk, asking for his room. She was surprised. He had not had a visit, pastoral or otherwise, in several months, maybe longer.
Leonard wasn’t on the congregation’s incomplete list of homebound members and those living in area nursing homes; he was hardly remembered anyway. I found out about him only indirectly. He had no family in the congregation; his wife was a member but she was homebound, dependent on family and a visiting nurse. Why didn’t she pester someone to remember Leonard? In her own way, she had forgotten him too.
Their children were scattered about the county, so getting his wife to the nursing home was catch as catch can, never much of a priority. They were ten years separated, he and his wife. Visits like that for family can become excruciating, something to put off.
Such visits can be excruciating for pastors, too. I never had a complete conversation with him, and only rarely was he able to commune, my usual default for difficult visits (at least I would have had something to do). I didn’t find anything especially rewarding in visiting him. But I went.
There are more people like Leonard in our congregations than anybody admits—people put aside, forgotten essentially. They simply drift from memory and become ancient history to nearly everyone. “Oh, is he still living?”
Twenty years before meeting Leonard I read the reflections of a seminarian just back from his one-year parish residency. He was a year ahead of me in seminary, which means I was doing my residency while he was finishing his senior year. Returning residents shared their experiences.
He had found himself wondering about the value of making calls on some institutionalized parishioners, especially ones with little if any awareness of the pastor’s presence.
As far as he could see it was a waste of time. There were other things he could have been doing, sermon preparation, maybe, and other people he could have been seeing―people who could talk to him, people who might be more appreciative of his visits and able to say so.
I remembered that cost-benefit approach every time I visited Leonard and while calling on not a few others over the years. Some pastoral visits are terrible, an affliction almost. But how does a pastor judge the worth of the visit? Is it vibrant conversation? Is it somebody offering coffee and a “thank you”; is that what validates a pastoral call and makes it all worth the effort so he’s not wasting his time? No, it isn’t that.
The value is the fact of the visit, nothing more. It is out of your hands in any case. So this small if presumptive admonition if you’re a pastor. Don’t ever think about “pastoral effectiveness.” Make the visit and let God determine the benefit. That’s his responsibility anyway, not yours. Your job is to do it and offer it to the Lord, and to pray again, “Restore to me the joy of thy salvation” (Ps. 51:12).
Russell E. Saltzman, a former Lutheran pastor transitioning to the Roman Catholic Church, is book review editor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com, and his previous First Things contributions are here.